Don’t Get Trapped

Something happened a few weeks that made me both angry and sad.  The emotions came in waves; I was angry when I first experienced it, and then a few hours later, the anger subsided and I was filled with sadness, a compassion for those who have succumbed to this sad event.  No, it wasn’t men across the country being dragged to see the latest Twilight movie by their significant other.  Instead, it was what I see as a massive training faux pas; when the drive for bigger traps leads you to neglect more important muscles.  Let me explain.I had brought my trap bar to school on a Thursday so that I could do some deadlifts against bands, as preparation for my heavy deadlifts on Saturday afternoon.  It’s part of a training template that’s working extremely well.  When I finished my 4 sets of 3, I broke down the set up and moved on to my next exercise, which was probably some sort of reverse lunge.  Seeing the empty trap bar resting against the wall, an enthusiastic classmate asked if he could use the trap bar for his sets of shrugs.

Shrugs?  Really?  I went along with it anyway, and here’s why.

When you shrug out of a rack, the bar only moves a few inches.  It’s about your traps, and nothing else.  Unless someone else wants to deadlift with it, I don’t really see a huge issue with people using the trap bar for shrugs, unless they think it’s specifically designed for shrugging.  It was designed to be used for deadlifting people, come on!  Well, as my friend started loading up the plates and performing his shrugs, we noticed something.  His shrugs were coming along well, but the hardest part was picking the bar up and putting it down.  You know that Planet Fitness commercial that I love to hate?  He wasn’t doing so well with it:

“I put things up and put them down.”

Unfortunately, this shrug-happy fellow isn’t much of a deadlifter, and it was showing.  When I think about shrug-happy guys in gyms across the country, I almost want to have a moment of silence.  Not because they love their traps, but because they’ve been trapped, and neglect the rest of their body.  It’s possible to train your traps without relying soley on shrugs!

If I bring up deadlifting, I don’t think you’ll be very surprised.  Deadlifting is good for just about everything, and I hope that one day deadlifts will be used to end world hunger and cure life-threatening diseases.  (The latter may actually be true.)  Anyone that’s deadlifted some heavy weight is going to tell you that your upper back gets taxed, but the shrug happy are quick to dispel this training truth.  Even if your only goal is to have massive traps, and you’ve never picked a heavy bar up off the ground, I’d certainly recommend learning how to pull and adding it to your programming.  As your posterior chain strength catches up to the rest of your body, you’ll see some nice improvements in strength throughout your body, and I bet that your traps take a beating as well.

Unfortunately if you’re like the fellow we discussed above, your hips will need some time to catch up.  If you have access to bands and/or chains, you can use them to modify the deadlift, allowing you to comfortably move lighter weight off the floor, but handle heavy loads at the top, where you’ll be looking for that familiar tug from shrugging.  Here’s an example of a deadlift with chains:

You won’t see it since I’ve embeded the videos, but the description includes the following, which helped inspire the idea of the post:  “In a commercial gym….why does everyone perform shrugs but nobody deadlifts? If you want to get stronger, build muscle, burn more calories, be more man…then performing deadlifts is more than 10x the exercise that shrugs will ever be. If you insist, shrug later in your workout after you deadlift.”

If you’re not willing to start deadlifting, then you are a walking ball of fail are not very likely to want to do cleans either, but I will note that cleans can function as a great trap-building exercise.  I’m pointing it out because it’s true, but I wouldn’t recommend high-rep/high-volume cleans for hypertrophy.  Cleans are a fabulous exercise to develop explosive power, and as such are very technical.  It would be irresponsible to use them for hypertrophy purposes.  I was asked if I was doing cleans for my traps yesterday, and the answer was a quick “No!”  I was doing cleans to work on my clean; there are safer exercises to use that focus on true trap hypertrophy.

One that works rather well, and takes care of other things like upper back health, is the seated dumbbell power clean.  You’ll see in the video below that it doesn’t require triple extension, but does include the shrug and high-pull necessary for a strong clean, hence the name.  The video below is from Jersey based strength coach Joe DeFranco:

I’m not naive enough to think that you’ll drop shrugs from your program entirely; I tend to think once a shrugger, always a shrugger.  If that’s the case I’m hoping I can provide an exercise example for you that’ll allow you to get the results that you want in a more efficient fashion, so you can spend your extra time learning how to deadlift like you should be doing anyway!  (See what I did there?!)  This shrug variation is brought to you by Baltimore based strength coach Nick Tumminello, who shares a one arm shrug called the Gittleson shrug.

In a perfect world, you won’t need a reminder to pull heavy.  You know that deadlifting requires use of the entire posterior chain, which includes your beloved traps.  Once you’ve taken care of your deadlifts, and if your traps still require some extra attention, try giving the seated dumbbell power clean or the Gittleson shrug a try.  Hopefully you’ll enjoy those two exercises, and you can use them to develop a healthy, strong body.

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